Saturday, July 4, 2020

Kerrera - A Year Ago

Here I am stuck at home, with a total incompetent in charge of things. It probably means the virus will run rampant for the rest of the year, and ten's of thousands of unnecessary deaths. It seems trivial, in all of this, that I am concerned about not being allowed to return to the UK in 2021. But those trips have become very important to me over the past 30 years.

At this point, the best island-going I can do is by living in the past. It was in July of last year that I visited a dozen Hebridean islands, starting with Kerrera. I took the relatively new north-end ferry, and then spent a couple hours wandering around the north tip of the island. After a visit to the Hutcheson Monument, and the nearby monastic ruins, I made my way to the shore opposite Rubha a' Cruidh (cattle point). That 'point' is actually a tidal island connected to Kerrera, from where they used to swim cattle to the mainland. It was low tide, which I'd assumed would allow for a dry-foot crossing. But my assumption was wrong. There was still a two-foot-deep channel. 


There were several large stepping stones, but they were rounded, spaced far apart, and far too slick to step on. It was as if the owners wanted the ambiance of stepping stones, but not ones that could actually be used. The new owners must be well off. No usable stepping stones are needed because they've built a hundred-foot pontoon dock, and installed a helipad next to the mansion.


The water was shallow enough to wade across, but I decided against it. It would be worth getting wet if I could wander freely around the island. But I could see that a gate barred access to the track on the far side, which leads to the mansion that was built on the islet several years ago. I got the definite feeling I would not receive a warm welcome. There were bound to be alarms, and Alsatians ready to eat me, so I decided not to spoil my brilliant day with an unpleasant encounter.



I have fond memories of Rubha a' Cruidh. Prior to the construction of the mansion there was a modest house on the island, which looked like a peaceful retreat from 'big city' Oban. I remember many cruises out of Oban, where the sight of that simple house signaled the beginning, and the end, of island adventures. Another memory was Samson, who stood guard on the shore of Rubha a' Cruidh for many years. He would bid us farewell as we departed, and greet us on our return - always ready to repel any unfriendly visitors.


Whoever built the new mansion must not have liked Samson. Either that, or the old owners of Rubha a' Cruidh wanted to keep him. When the mansion was built Samson disappeared, but a year later he made a brief appearance on Oban's North Pier. He was not there for long, and I've not seen him since.


I then made my way to the Marina to await the ferry back to Oban. I had a few minutes before it left, so I took a look at the Waypoint Restaurant. Unfortunately I did not have time for a pint. I promised myself I'd return someday for that pint, and boarded the ferry.

Next up would be a visit to one of my all-time favourte group of islands - the Shaints.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Yet Another Bell Stolen

I recently learned some sad news. Twenty years ago I visited a unique island in Loch Shiel, a dozen miles southwest of the Glenfinnan Monument. This small island has two names: An t-Eilean Uaine (the Green Isle), and Eilean Fhianain (St Finnan's Isle). I wrote about the visit in chapter 20 of book 1, and the highlight was seeing Clag Fhianain, a bronze handbell that has rested on the altar of Isle Finnan for several centuries. 


The sad news was that the bell was stolen from Eilean Fhianain in 2019. There is a scorching place in hell waiting for the thief, and he will have a lot of bell-thieving company. The loss of Clag Fhianain is just one in the long list of Celtic handbells that have been stole over the years. There is St Kenneth's Bell, taken from Inchkenneth in the late 1700s, St Kessog's Bell, which went missing from Loch Lomond in the 1800s, and St Modan's Bell last seen at Ardchattan. Prior to the loss of Finnan's Bell, the most recent theft was when St Adamnan's Bell was stolen from Insh Church in September of 2017. I visited Insh in 1995 to see the bell, and was surprised to find it mounted on the church wall, completely unattended.


Although there are curses, and legends, that these bells always find their way home, I don't have high hopes that they will be recovered. But, just perhaps, at some point in the future these low-life thieves will die an unpleasant death, and their families will discover the bells hidden in dusty closets and return them. That's what happened to the Clanranald Stone, stolen from Howmore on North Uist in 1990. Five years later the heavy stone was found in a London closet after the thief died. It is now back in the Western Isles where it belongs. One can hope a similar fate awaits the bells, and the thieves, of Isle Finnan and Insh.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Dolphins at Play

Being stuck at home has one benefit. I have been able to make a start at organizing my camera memory card backups. I am always afraid I'll lose photos, so in some cases I've made backups of backups of backups. All resulting in terabytes of files scattered about in ten different external hard drives.

As I go through all these files I occasionally stumble upon videos, like the ones in the last few posts, that I'd totally forgotten about. I have taken very few videos over the years, as when I do I end up concentrating on the camera and not the moment. I was so excited when GoPros came out that I bought one in 2010. But it became just one more thing to pack and keep charged, so it only made its way to Scotland once. Since then what few videos I've taken were using my trusty point-and-shoot, so the quality is not too good.

Here is one of those point-and-shoot videos. It dates to 2009 and shows a half-dozen joyful dolphins riding the bow wave of Halmar Bjorge. These days when the dolphins show up (as they usually do) I leave the camera off and enjoy the show.


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Don't Go On The 8-3-0

Since 1990, on my way to the isles, I must have driven the A830 highway from Fort William to Mallaig a dozen times. Prior to 2009 much of it was a terrifying single track, especially so for rookie left-side drivers. The road had narrow hairpin turns, and blind corners, where at any moment a large truck carrying fish or timber could appear out of nowhere coming head on. The danger was not just in front. A look in the rear-view mirror would usually show a gargantuan tour bus on its way to the Skye ferry. The bus would be so close that you could see the driver's agitated face in the mirror. The cause of the agitation was not the dangerous road, but how slow you've been driving.

If you've ever driven the road to the isles when it was single track there is a song guaranteed to make you smile. It is Don't Go On The 8-3-0, and can be found on the McCalmans 1993 album Honest Poverty. Have a listen - lyrics can be found at  Don't Go On The 8-3-0. My favorite bit is:

When lorries lose control, you've one last wish
Don't let me die under 20 tons of fish.

Friday, May 29, 2020

I Miss the Puffins, too

In a normal year several thousand tourists make day-trips from Oban and Mull to see the puffin colony on Lunga. When those trips are operating there can be close to a hundred people on the island, all wanting to get close to the colorful birds. It is exhilarating to sit next to the burrows and watch as the Puffins go about their business; and busy birds they are, continually flying in with beakfuls of eels to feed their young. Those not busy feeding spend their time bickering, kissing, and growling at each other. (The birds, not the tourists. Although I have seen a few growling tourists over the years). The puffins are used to visitors, but I am sure they are happy to be left alone this year.

The best way to avoid the crowds is on a small boat cruise, where they'll set you ashore before the day-boats arrive. The following video was taken in 2008, when I was on the sailing yacht Zuza. Including myself, there was a grand total of four passengers on the cruise. (It doesn't get much better than that.) This allowed us all to spend some quality time with the puffins. The video gives some sense of what that's like. (You can see Zuza in the background of the first scene).



Monday, May 25, 2020

I Miss This

I miss sitting atop the wheelhouse of Hjalmar Bjorge as it plows through the sea. Here's a sampler of what that's like. The final section show us in calmer seas off Sulasgier of the gannets.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Talisker House - A look Back

The last post on a virtual visit to the Viking Canal made me wish I was really on Skye. So I dug through my journals looking for entries about the island. As I did I came a cross a Skye walk I'd never written about - one made twenty years ago. 

It was June of 2000. After a long stay on Rum (book 1, chapter 28), my wife were on Skye, driving the single track to Talisker House. I'd booked a room there for one night to break up our journey to North Uist. Oh how I regret my thinking back then, in just booking for one night - one night in a historic place that deserved a week at least.

It was a beautiful, cloudless day, as we made the 50-mile drive across Skye from Armadale. We found Talisker House at the end of a long single-track road, where we were graciously greeted by Jon and Ros Wathen (I believe the Talisker Estate was owned by their family). We were fortunate in our timing. Talisker would not operate as a B&B for very long, as in a few years the Walthens would leave to run a guest house in Australia.


Talisker House was built in 1717 for the Macleods of Talisker, and hosted Boswell and Johnson for two nights in 1773. Dr Johnson did not think much of the place, reporting that it is The place beyond all that I have seen from which the gay and the jovial seem utterly excluded.

Talisker is an interesting name. So much so that the Carbost distillery, which lies four miles away on the shore of Loch Harport, took it as a name. I have come across two translations of Talisker. The first is 'house at the rock', the second is 'echo-rock' (the Gaelic for 'echo' is MacTalla, the son of the hall). The aforementioned rock is Preshal Mor, which you can see in the previous photo looming 1000 feet above the house.

We had booked for dinner at the house. That's something I don't usually like to do as it limits your options for a long walk. But there were no other places for a meal in the area. With only two hours to explore I decided to walk some of the Talisker Horseshoe and see if there was an echo at Echo Rock. 


The Talisker Horsehoe is a five mile circuit from the house up to Preshal More (1050 ft.), then around the upper reaches of Glen Sleadale to Preshal Beg (1130 ft), and then back down to Talisker. With only two hours I'd just have time to reach the head of the glen.

From Talisker House Preshal More looks like the Devil's Tower, a massive stack of rock. But as I climbed to the southeast it became a giant wall of stone that reminded me of the Sgurr of Eigg. As I approached I could hear the echos of baa'ing sheep.


It had been a long day of travel, and it was very hot. I was so tired after climbing 500 feet in the heat that I decided not to climb to the top. After finding a place to sit and catch my breath I started to yell, listening as the echos washed down into the glen.

I carried on south along the route of the horseshoe. An hour into the walk I came to the turnaround point at the head of Glen Sleadale. It was a beautiful spot, and in the late afternoon haze one of Macleod's Maidens could be seen rising from the sea off Idrigill Point.


If I hadn't had to be back by 7:30 I'd have kept on going. But the wife would not be very happy if I missed dinner, so I started back. The walk down the glen, along the banks of the Sleadale Burn, was stunning. And as I rounded a knoll the policies of Talisker House came into view, an oasis of pines surrounded by fields of abandoned lazybeds.


I was back just in time for dinner. I don't remember what was on the menu, but I do remember that my wife and I felt a little under-dressed in our jeans, as everyone else was smartly attired. But we travel light, and jeans are all we bring on vacation. After the 'Full Scottish' the next morning we set off to Uig to catch the ferry to Lochmaddy.  

I regret that all-too-short stay, and so a return to Talisker is high on the to-do list. But the closest I'll get this year is by enjoying a smoky dram with a splash of highland spring water. 

Slainte!